I’ll be unable to post material for at least a week and, for the most part, will be disconnected from all online media. Plan on a fresh post a week from tomorrow. Also understand that, while I’ve been doing my best to regulate commentary (much of which has been amazingly good), I will also be unable to do that over the next 8 days as well. I would simply advise readers not to engage in personal attacks in the comments section and, if you are rebuked in a less than civil way, resist the urge to get into a slugfest. Makes everyone, not to mention The Pitchfork, look bad. Thanks.
On a final, note, I have long pieces coming out soon in The American Scholar and Conservation Magazine (both cover stories) and, possibly, the New York Times. There’s a chance these may come out while I’m off line, but I’ll post when they are published. Meantime, keep an eye out. Be well. Thanks, again.
Here is a discussion between Gail Collins and David Brooks, both of the Times op-ed page, where they are columnists. This is not a parody. I have made none of it up. You will be stunned at the . . . oh, never mind. Just read on. (And please follow on twitter @the_pitchfork.
Gail Collins: David, here in New York we’ve been having a crisis over swans. Can we talk about that today? I don’t think we’ve ever discussed large fowl before.
David Brooks: I’d be really happy to talk about them, but when I was growing up we called them pigeons. The only birds I remember in New York were pigeons — and maybe sparrows, but sparrows manage to live without actually entering the consciousness of the creatures around them. I’m guessing you’re referring to pigeons and that now we’re calling them swans in the hopes that it will boost their self-esteem.
Gail: Wow, I’m getting a vision of pigeons tattooing each other and shooting up steroids. I think we have another movie script idea. But no, this involves real swans – mute swans, to be precise.
The New York Department of Environmental Conservation wants to get rid of virtually all the mute swans in the state. Apparently they eat up a lot of aquatic vegetation. But their main crime is being nonnative. Rich people brought them over from Europe to swim around in their estate ponds and now there are about 2,200 of them. Actually, that doesn’t seem like a lot of birds for a state this big. But the officials want to declare the swans a “prohibited invasive species.”
Doesn’t that seem sort of un-American?
David: My view is that the swans should be able to claim political asylum to escape all the Frenchmen chasing them for their foie gras. Yes, I know foie gras comes from geese, not swans, but I’m not sure U.S. immigration officials know that.
Gail: I’m generally in favor of government intervention in animal-management situations, but I’m coming down on the swan side. If New York is going to worry about wildlife overpopulation, they should concentrate on the deer and the geese. Or send all their troops west to block the path of the wild pigs. Do you know how many feral hogs we’ve got in this country? They’re taking over!
David: We’ve got feral hogs in Washington too! Many with law degrees. I’m not sure what the best method to reduce their number is, though bow hunting strikes me as a promising approach.
As for your animal problems in New York, I’m sensing an agreement between us. I‘d take care of the excess deer first. Then I’d take on the geese. I was once almost killed by a very angry mama goose while out for a run in Tarrytown. Since then I’ve been terrified at the prospect of being killed by anything essentially vegetarian. I wouldn’t mind some carnivorous bear or a lion taking me down, but I’d hate to be gummed to death by a grass eater.
Gail: You’ve been thinking a lot about ethics lately. Where do you come down on human rights versus animal rights?
David: My thinking about animal rights is evolving, I guess. On the one hand, I eat animals. On the other hand, it’s hard not to be impressed with the moral sophistication of some animals. The question to me is whether animals have souls. I guess I don’t think any have the sort of souls that could be saved or damned. But I do think elephants, dolphins and dogs exhibit soul-like behavior — that is to say, they seem to exhibit moral virtues, like empathy and loyalty.
Last December I gave a Sidney Award to an essay on the soulful behavior of elephants. In one story an elephant who had been abused at a circus greeted a new acquaintance by showing her all the places where she had been injured. The other elephant touched each injured spot with her trunk, as if to say: I feel for you. I am with you.
I wouldn’t be comfortable eating an animal who could do that.
On the other hand, when it comes to geese and deer, I’m like: Go ahead, make my day. I guess I’m describing a slippery slope between animals that seem to have soul-like pieces and animals, like cows, that don’t. This may be extremely self-justifying and bogus, but I’m comfortable with slippery slope arguments. Much of life is about making decisions on a continuum.
Gail: I believe humans come first, and that our main responsibility to the animals is not to cause them unnecessary suffering. If there are too many deer or geese, it’s O.K. to get rid of the excess. But we have to do our best to kill them fast so they won’t die in pain.
David: I’m totally with you on the reducing pain element. Here the laws of kosher killing seem wise. It’s amazing, by the way, how late this sensibility entered human history. For centuries and centuries, even after civilization was quite far along, many smart, caring people were utterly insensible to the suffering of animals. They would have considered it bizarre to care as we do.
Gail: I’m also a big fan of protecting endangered species, but to tell the truth, that’s mainly because they’re a good warning indicator. The things we have to do to protect endangered species are almost always things we need to do to protect the planet for ourselves. Otherwise, to be honest, I could be pretty serene about the passing of the stubfoot toad.
David: Here I slide back onto my continuum. I’d be for preserving endangered animals as long as the human costs aren’t too high.Absolutists sometimes seem on the verge of stopping economic growth for the sake of a few snail darters. More generally, I’m for saving truly homely animals. We have to fight our natural tendency to favor the adorable. It’s a good moral discipline to defend the stubfoot toad, while forcing koalas to take care of themselves.
Gail: Our national attitude toward wild animals has too much of a pro-cuteness bias. If deer had tusks and little beady eyes, we’d have long ago figured out how to reduce the deer population.
David: I’m trying to think of the ugliest animals we allow to live among us. Donkeys I guess. Plus journalists.
Gail: And then there’s meat-eating. How far do you think we’re obliged to go in making sure the animals we eat weren’t tortured on their way to the dinner table? Nick Kristof wrote a columnrecently about factory farming, where animals are squashed so close together that they spend their lives unable to move.
I’m not sure we have an ethical obligation to give livestock full and rewarding lives, but we should at least face up to the way these animals are treated. Right now this is one of the many, many aspects of society where we tend to vote for avoidance.
David: If anybody really wants to think hard about this, I recommend Jonathan Safran Foer’s book “Eating Animals.” For myself, I prefer not to know. I’ve definitely practiced avoidance all my life. I don’t suppose there is any nonmessy way to kill large numbers of large animals, though obviously I’d be for humane treatment on the way to the culling floor.
Gail: How do you feel about hunting? I can appreciate the intense feeling a lot of people have for hunting – although the business about standing in the water waiting for a duck to fly by still escapes me. And while it’s good for gun control advocates to make sure they aren’t mistaken for anti-hunting crusaders, some politicians do go overboard on that point. Listening to some liberal Democrats talk about the glories of shooting partridge, you’d think they were refugees from “Downton Abbey.”
David: I respect hunting as a social institution and I defend it ideologically, but to be honest I could never hunt myself. I have a problem with the idea of sitting around waiting for something and then I have a problem with the act of shooting a creature. That pretty much takes me out of the two big sides of the hunting vocation. I say that aware that I grew up in a big city and I have a certain urban value set so I’m hesitant to impose it on others. I do understand the mental and physical challenge of the sport.
Gail: By the way, what’s your favorite wild animal? Years ago, I did a story about the Bronx Zoo, and I went looking for an animal that was so unlovely, nobody even went “aww” at the babies. I finally settled on the bats. I’ve been a big bat fan ever since.
David: O.K., now we’re crossing the credibility threshold. Do you mean to tell me if a bat landed on your shoulders you wouldn’t immediately flop around frantically trying to get the ugly little bugger off you? I definitely would.
Gail: You’ve got me. Last year, I was in the country and grabbed a book from the shelf. A bat fell out and landed on the desk in front of me, hissing. I instinctively clobbered it with the book before I had a chance to contemplate the critical role of bats in the circle of life.
David: I guess my favorite ugly animal would be the sloth. It’s not only truly ugly, it’s a moral role model. It teaches us to slow down and enjoy life.
The environmental case against raising animals for food becomes increasingly stronger as more and more research emerges. A closer look at the finer points on the comparative water usage between livestock and plants highlights this correlation quite clearly.
According to researchers recently cited in a Mother Jones article, beef has a water footprint of 15,415 cubic meters/ton. The water footprint for “sugar crops” is 197 cubic meters/ton; for vegetables it’s 240 cubic meters/ton. This dramatic disparity alone raises serious questions as to why anyone seeking to analyze the current California drought would highlight the water footprint of nuts—admittedly, a relatively high 9,063 cubic meters/ton—when cattle consume so much of California’s scarce water supply, most of it in the form of alfalfa. Doing so strikes me as a case of distraction journalism.
A related issue when it comes to comparing the ecological impact of the food is methane–which has 72 times the global warming potential as carbon. Last year was a big year for methane research. Scientists discovered that U.S. methane output is 50 percent more than the EPA was estimating and 70 percent more than the figure cited by th European Environmental Agency’s Emission Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR). Especially revealing was the fact that livestock related emissions were twice the current estimates, accounting for up to 33 percent of global methane emissions. Cows burp and defecate, methane escapes, it harms the environment. This claim holds true for factory farmed and pastured animals.
Given these kinds of figures, in addition to the urgency with which environmentalists rightfully urge humans to adjust their behavior to prevent planetary implosion, it strikes me as a little ridiculous that we’re actually having serious arguments over whether or not veganism is a good move for the environment. Of course it is.
Let’s close that case and start talking about why the eco-foodies who wring their hands so earnestly about ecological destruction are not taking the obvious and in many ways the most accessible step of exclusively eating plants.
I’ve been stewing about this article for days. Courtesy of Mother Jones (an increasingly reliable source of gratuitous fear-mongering) the piece prods readers to go into high-anxiety mode over the ecological impact of almonds. Yep. Almonds. Turns out these crunchy little nuts are hogging California’s water, which is dangerously scarce. “It takes how much water to grow an almond?,” screams the headline.
When it comes to water almonds don’t matter. What matters is livestock. Here are some facts: growing alfalfa to feed cattle consumes more water than any other crop in California; most of the federal support that goes to struggling California farmers goes to ranchers; it takes 2000-2500 gallons of water to produce a pound of beef. It takes about 11o gallons to produce a pound of almonds. One clogs your arteries and demands the intentional slaughter of a sentient animal. The other packs of wallop of nutrients and requires no visit to the slaughterhouse.
What Marc Reisner wrote in Cadillac Desert still holds true today: “The West’s water crisis — and many of its environmental problems as well — can be summed up, implausible as this may seem, in a single word: livestock.” But, not to worry: the National Cattleman’s Association has asked its members to pray for rain. Meanwhile, I’ll be praying that somebody in the crazy world of food writing comes to his senses
There’s no doubt that a lot of animals can safely be called fully conscious and self-aware beings. Sentient. Elaborate tests really aren’t required to make this assessment. It takes little more than momentary observation of wild and domesticated animals to recognize their obvious sense of self. It doesn’t require much to see that they understand place within space and, possibly, in time. This ability to recognize animal sentience holds true for children and adults, animal experts and laypeople.
But to what extent are certain animals, mostly mammalian and avian, self-aware? In an important sense, the answer doesn’t matter. That is, the answer in no way shifts the criteria upon which we rightfully choose not to exploit animals unnecessarily. That criteria, of course, is the ability to suffer. The prospect of suffering, no matter what the depth of an animal’s consciousness, no matter how similar or dissimilar that consciousness appears to be from our own (whatever that is), requires that we treat animals with the same moral consideration we’d grant to humans–creatures whom morally literate citizens also aim to avoid causing unnecessary suffering.
In other ways–more tertiary ways–the question of animal consciousness does matter. Animal ethologists should keep striving to understand the deeper nature of an animal’s self-awareness because that understanding helps us think about the fairest ways to integrate animals into human culture. Should animals be allowed to offer testimony (non-verbal) in court? Should we hold animals accountable for dastardly deeds done to each other for seemingly “senseless” reasons, such as when one dog rips into another at the dog park? If a human claims to love his companion animal in a romantic way do we take that claim seriously? Do we entertain the notion that an animal, which some studies have shown are capable of romantic love, might love a human back? Are there other ways for animals to consent without grammar and syntax? These questions are more complex than they might at first seem. We need to know more about the nature of animal self-awareness before we can responsibly develop answers.
Inevitably, it will be the case that we’ll make these explorations through human categories, biases, and presuppositions. Chances are slim, I imagine, that we’ll ever “get” the consciousness of a dog from a a dog’s perspective (or, as Thomas Nagel famously argued, a bat from the bat’s perspective). Even thinking we can do so is a logical contradiction. But that limitation should not inhibit our investigations. Imagine what we could discover if we took the resources we waste on vivisection and put them towards research into mammalian and avian consciousness?
There are many specific aspects of consciousness we might explore, but one that strikes me as especially important is this: the nature of an animal’s grasp of the past. Of course animals recollect. Squirrels know where they’ve stashed their cache, elephants remember where poachers hid, ants know where to go in that crazy maze, and chickens recall dozens of human faces. But recollection and memory are different. Recollection directs behavioral survival–where are those nuts?–but memory enables narration, and the control of narration allows us to weave more nuanced meaning into life. It’s perfectly possible that animals, most likely primates and whales, possess a consciousness that allows them to grasp their past as an abstraction that lends present existence, as well as future expectations, with continuity. Avery meaningful continuity.
Perhaps I’m drifting into dangerous waters with this claim, but I do wonder to what extent memory, and the life-affirming narration it allows, bears on the quality and meaning of life. Does a creature with a consciousness capable of arranging webs of memories into stories and myths and tall tales have a more meaningful life than a creature who lives life largely in the present but is able to poke into the past for isolated bits of survival data? And if so, does this distinction impact their moral standing in human society?
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For those who follow the travails of factory farming nothing is shocking anymore. We’ve endured pink slime and Mad Cow and McFibs and we know the industry will literally shove all manner of deception down our throats while telling us how important their products are to human and economic health. But diarrhea? Yup. Add that one to the list.
Last night I got a call from a friend at HSUS. He told me about the details of an undercover investigation they’d just completed at a Kentucky pig operation named Iron Maiden Farms (yeah, I know, too much). Pig farms have suffered massive outbreaks of a disease called “porcine epidemic diarrhea” (PED)–which primarily kills piglets. To combat this disease, Iron Maiden has sought to foster immunity to PED in sows by feeding them a puree made from the infected intestines of their dead piglets.
In response to the accusation, the executive director of the American Association of Swine Veterinarians (according to Nicholas Kristof’s reporting), said that “From a public health standpoint, I don’t think there’s a risk there.” He also noted, though, that pig farmers were doing more than feeding PED infected piglet intestines to sows. They were also, as Kristof explained, “increasingly finding that it’s more effective simply to use diarrhea from an infected animal to expose sows to P.E.D.”
Kristof goes on to note that this sinister stew is yet another reason to not eat pigs from factory farms–places that disregard the basic welfare of pigs, not to mention the people who eat them. To guide consumers in the right direction, he contrasts Iron Maiden with the Niman Ranch Pork Company which, according to Kristof, raises “animals humanely.” But this is the wrong lesson to take from the HSUS’s Iron Maiden discovery. In fact, it only ensures that the Iron Maidens of the world will continue their awful work.
HSUS’s undercover work was exceptional. It provides an opportunity to remind ourselves that when people own animals for the purposes of killing them and profiting from that killing for food we don’t need, animals will suffer immensely. Iron Maiden confines it’s pigs and feeds them the diarrheal excretions of their offspring before killing them. Niman allows pigs more pasture time and does not feed them piglet intestines before killing them. But in both scenarios, animals smarter than your preschooler die prematurely and unnecessarily. Both animals become objects from which their owners will benefit. Both are slaughtered for no other good reason than the whimsical human desire to eat them.
All of which makes you kind of wonder why Niman wastes so much time and effort tending to their pigs’ welfare in the first place. They’re going to treat them like junk at the end of the day anyway, just like the factory farms do. Consumers are foolish to think that eating from Niman exonerates them from the horrors of Iron Maiden. In the long run, by reiterating that it’s fine to eat pigs, consumers choosing “humane” pork only guarantee that the Iron Maidens of the industry get to keep pulling off the same old shit.
When we will realize the implications of this connection? When will we react to these scandals in a way that actually prevents them from ever happening again?
Note: Here’s a link to a site on pig management that explicitly directs farmers to add diarrhea to the pigs’s water.
That’s the good news.
The bad news is that NPR’s coverage of this story was a mess. It begins by immediately belittling the issue of horse welfare, noting that one might reasonably expect the mayor to deal with “big picture problems” instead of . . . .horses. This choice of an opener raises a question. Why would a journalist begin an article on any topic by suggesting that, compared to “big” issues, the one she was covering didn’t really matter? If nothing else, this is a strange way to draw attention to a topic that is somehow important enough to warrant national coverage.
But Janet Babin’s dismissive attitude infects the entire piece. Babin explains that “horse carriage rides are a staple in cities around the country.” Really? In so far as a “staple” is a “main item of trade or production,” horse carriage rides are decidedly not a staple of the urban experience. The reporter furthers her opinion—and, in a way, what she has put together is an opinion piece–that the Mayor’s proposal is just plain weird by reporting that the mayor “raised some collective eyebrows” with his choice.
This phrase is another interesting choice. It implies that everyday folks—the collective–were similarly thrown for a loop by the fact that the mayor cares more than a whit about horse welfare. But again, there’s no evidence offered of a collective anything. And if there was, how about the possibility that a collective of New Yorkers might find the carriage trade problematic? Might it have been more accurate to note that “a collective cheer” went up when New Yorkers heard the news?
And then there’s the problem of context. The carriage horses are largely a political and horse welfare issue whose underlying motivator is economic. The money is on the side of the drivers who allegedly exploit horses. But the politics aren’t—they are more complex, including as they do, interest groups who are concerned with the welfare of horses. Babin again takes the easy way out by ignoring this context and offering only opinions (her own, the industry’s, a horse advocacy group’s) while calling it “news coverage” — which it isn’t.
The segment goes downhill quickly. Before explaining why the horse carriage industry might be a welfare problem, Babin rushes to quote a joke from the Daily Show with John Stewart. Stewart had remarked, ”Should we even be living here? ‘Cause . . . sometimes I look at their stable and I go like, what do you think that’d go for, $1,600 a month? What do you think?” Well, sorry to be a grump, but I think humor does not have a place in this story. Unless you find the prospect of horse abuse funny.
When Babin finally does get around to exploring the issue from a welfare angle she quotes Allie Feldman, the executive director of New Yorkers for Clean, Livable and Safe Streets. Feldman gives a great quote, but her organization is identified as an “animal rights group.” Now, maybe Feldman described her organization this way but, judging from the organization’s website, I would doubt it. It does not in any way address the issue of animal rights per se. More to the point, it allows Babin to use loaded language—yikes!, an animal rights group!—to skew the issue as one that only a bunch of crazies, oh and the mayor, cares about.
She then quotes the Horse and Carriage Association, which predictably says, ”A lot of these horses come from very, very bad backgrounds and are rescued from very abusive situations. This is not an abusive situation . . .” And then some tourists from North Carolina who are crushed that they’ll never be able to ride through Central Park behind horses that, according to a great deal of evidence that Babin ignores, suffer immensely.
Not only is the Horse and Carriage Association given the last word in this piece, but its message of sanctuary is never countered by credible and widely available information that would, if given attention, have resonance to more than the “animal rights activists” who Babin identifies as the only nuts who care about this issue in the first place.
NPR’s Grade: D.
Note to readers: I’m in the process of beginning an on-line project with the journalist Vickery Eckhoff that evaluates the media’s coverage of animal issues. A more thorough statement of purpose, as well as a web address will be forthcoming. For now, though, please note that the kind of piece published here is the sort of work that Eckhoff and I (and an assemblage of writers) will be doing. Needless to say, when we launch, I hope to count on readers to spread the word. –jm
Civilization, to which agriculture is integral, is necessarily and systematically harmful to non-humans. This point was recently reiterated by Rhys Southan in a response to a post of mine arguing that omnivores have a added obligation to consider the ethical implications of eating animals.
The reason why his premise, which I did not originally acknowledge (but should have), should be taken seriously is that it raises a possible bind. After all, it has ethical vegans saying “don’t eat animals” while they continue to participate in the basic infrastructure of civilized life. And so the question emerges: can we say I don’t eat animals but I tacitly support developments that harm them in possibly more systematic ways?
It’s an excellent quandary to highlight because it suggests the potential inconsistency behind the seemingly untouchable idea that a decision to avoid eating animals is a selfless and morally superior choice. As it turns out, I think that it’s possible to draw a real distinction between the personal choice to avoid eating animals and our unavoidable (well, barring suicide or dropping out in some survivalist kind of way) participation in that collective inheritance known as civilization. Much of this distinction hinges on the degrees of separation between action and intention, as well as the extent of the consequences that ensue from our respective choices.
One relevant distinction between my choice to avoid animal products and my choice to, say, eat almonds that came from a plantation whose owners eradicated squirrels as a form of pest control, involves the relationship between intention and action. When I forgo eating a pig it’s not unreasonable for me to think that I have, as a direct result of my choice, helped save a pig from slaughter and consumption. Even if this one-to-one correlation is a self-serving (if not altogether false) mental construct, it nonetheless does the work of perpetuating my benevolent belief that it’s morally wrong to eat animals, and that doing so is tragically selfish and should be ended. To the extent that this opinion enters the world and merges with like-minded opinions on the subject of eating animals, thus shaping cultural thought in general, my decision to forgo the pig quietly ripples beyond my singular choice to become a force making civilization less harmful. Or at least attempting to.
When I choose to eat almonds instead of pigs, it could be said that I affirm the selfishness that I righteously denounce in the case of choosing to not eat the pig. In other words, that I, squirrel killer, behave inconsistently. But I can’t ultimately agree with that assessment. While one could argue that by choosing to forgo almonds I’d be choosing to spare the lives of squirrels, this position would miss the point that the primary intention of growing almonds (an integral act of being civilized) is not to harm squirrels. It’s to provide consumers with healthy plant food, ideally with as little suffering as possible.
Intentions direct future action. Almonds might now come at the expense of squirrel slaughter. But that’s just for now. Consumer support for almonds could easily become a force for positive change if consumers, perhaps inspired by the growing public disdain for the arbitrary but direct slaughter pf pigs, pushed farmers to pioneer growing methods that minimized and eventually eliminated the perceived need to kill squirrels. We’re innovative critters. Such a prospect seems a lot more reasonable than caring for and then killing an animal in a mini-system specifically designed to do only that: wreck the lives of animals.
There’s another way to distinguish between “eating animals is selfish and causes harm” and “living a civilized life is selfish and causes harm.” It has to do with the impact of these decisions on humans vis-a-vis non-humans. When you kill an animal for food we don’t need you necessarily focus suffering exclusively on non-humans in order to enhance the gustatory pleasures of the human (I realize this comment ignores the impact of slaughter on laborers . . .but most of them experience the pleasure of eating meat). The whole point of animal agriculture, whatever its form, is to exchange an animal’s death for human pleasure. Now, there are numerous aspects of civilization—conjure up any form of brute-force development—that devastate the non-human world, if only as an unintended consequence. But, as I’ll be the first to concede, human “civilization” per se is a bitch for non-humans. No doubt.
But—and here’s the critical point—it’s also a bitch for humans. The engine of civilization mows down the disenfranchised, be they human or non-human, with indiscriminate power. Consider driving, which is integral to being civilized (yeah, smug New Yorkers will disagree), and it becomes clear that when you drive a vehicle your chances of killing animals is quite high. But, with over 35,000– 40,000 Americans dying in car accidents every year, driving is no picnic for humans either. The unintended negative consequences of driving are experienced by humans and non-humans alike. There’s thus a parity of sorts in the dominant apparatuses of civilization.
Except when we explicitly jigger it to harm sentient non-humans in a way we’d never harm humans. That’s just uncivilized.
I think anyone who eats animals—and thinks about eating animals—is at least somewhat cognizant that the choice to do so is, on some level, an ethical one. Of course thoughtful meat-eaters are not walking around with their noses buried in Bentham, but they do, by virtue of being thinking meat-eaters, at least entertain the idea that there’s a basic difference between eating a pork chop and a piece of toast. A moral difference, no less. Put simply, for anyone who is honest with himself about the decision to raise and kill animals for food we don’t need, there’s a vague idea that eating animals under certain circumstances might very well be morally wrong.
It all comes down to the realization that an animal, like us, has interests—the most basic of which is avoiding pain. Because we cannot, as decent people, go through life thinking that our interests matter more than other interests simply because they are ours, we thus tacitly grant to other humans and many non-humans—basically anyone with an interest in avoiding pain and seeking pleasure—what philosophers call equal moral consideration. We may not even be aware that we live our daily lives according to this standard but, in most cases, we do. We often just call it the Golden Rule or some such and get on with the business of being decent folk.
Adherence to this fundamental notion of fairness actually requires a lot of us—and it structures the workings of everyday life. Notably, it means that if we are going to inflict intentional pain on another sentient being, we need to justify that painful act with a competing moral consideration. For example, when I affix a leash to my dog before walking her down a busy street, I surely cause a nominal amount of suffering. She hates her leash and is much happier left untethered. But of course I justify my decision to leash my dog with the competing moral consideration that, without that little torture device, she would dart into traffic and suffer far more serious harm, if not death.
That’s a relatively easy case. Where this scenario causes many meat eaters problems is when it forces them to highlight the rather unfortunate fact that the only competing consideration against killing an animal for food we don’t need is lame: our taste for the texture and flavor of that flesh. And, by any moral standard, that won’t cut it. After all, is it a standard you’d ever want applied to your own life? Or the society of humans you cohabit?
It’s for this reason that whenever I read contorted defenses for raising and killing animals I find myself thinking, “stop with the half-baked rationalizations and just admit you love meat too much to give it up.” I find this answer—I just can’t stop eating meat—to be far more refreshing than the pseudo-philosophical junk often brought in to justify the causation of terrible but unnecessary suffering. ”I know I shouldn’t eat meat but . . . .” strikes a more honest chord than “we evolved to eat meat.” Not that I agree with the “I can’t help it” assessment, but at least it doesn’t cheapen the importance of equal consideration of interests, which is at the foundation of leading an ethical life.
The looming nature of this conundrum—how can something as arbitrary as taste ethically justify killing animals?—may also help explain why so many consumers react to eating meat with such visceral enthusiasm. I know people who, at the mere mention of eating bacon, will veritably growl and twitch and say “mmmm. . . bacon,” as if there was something primal stirring in their gut. Nobody acts that way about broccoli. But it could it be that what’s primal is the subconscious effort to excuse ourselves from the moral standard we know deep down, as thinking meat eaters, we fail every time we eat animals? Could that expressed inability to stop eating meat be a way to avoid the conclusion that, to live an ethical life, we must do just that?
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Just a quick note to thank you for your patience as I finish a 6,000-word piece tentatively called “Loving Animals to Death: How The Food Movement Cooks its Own Goose.” It’s for a big publication and it’s due to my editor in the next few days. Been working round the clock on it. I plan to be back at The Pitchfork by Thursday, flush with fresh material. Meantime, be well.